Nails or No Nails on Ukulele?

Using fingernails in the right (strumming and picking) hand can add volume and range of tones to your ukulele playing. They can also break, get rough and uneven producing a weak, shrill sound, and can catch on the strings accidentally if not shaped properly. Not cool! With this in mind, I would highly recommend not using nails when you fist start learning the ukulele. We will always keep the left (fretting) hand nails short so that they don’t get in the way as you keep your fingers curved when making contact with the strings and fingerboard. Starting out without nails will produce a warm tone and will allow you to focus on the motion of the fingers as you develop coordination, control, and relaxation in the right hand. Many great ukulele artists continue using this technique without nails. Some use a plastic thumb pick which adds volume when strumming and picking individual notes. The thumb pick requires changing your thumb position to a place higher off the strings so the pick has enough clearance.

When playing with an extended index finger in the traditional style of ukulele playing, you make contact with the string on the pad of the finger away from the nail. You will use this point of contact even when you grow out your nails to produce a warm sound. The nails don’t make contact from this position.
When you play with the curved “C” shape in a classical position, you want to make contact on the tip of the finger. Before trying this, make sure the nails are cut as short as possible(don’t cut them too short and hurt your fingers!). When the nails are nice and short, try placing fingers on various strings aiming for the left side of the finger at the point where the nail would start if grown out. The right hand in this position plays at around a 45-degree angle so this point of contact should happen naturally as you approach the string with index, middle, and ring fingers. The thumb should make a similar point of contact on the left edge and should curve back slightly instead of curving the tip joint in (remember “banana thumb”). Practice this finger placement very slowly by touching the four strings with these four fingers: Thumb touching the 4th string, index touch the 3rd string, middle touching the 2nd string, and ring touching the 1st string. Don’t play the strings at first. Just place your fingers in position. Now put a little pressure into the string. Let the weight of gravity help. You should see the strings dip down slightly. Now release the strings as a four-note chord by moving you thumb into a relaxed fist. Try this as a four note chord then individually and in groups of two and three fingers. Always try to make the same point of contact. Think of three stages of playing each note or chord:

  • Contact (on the left side)
  • Pressure (see the strings dip slightly)
  • Release (into a relaxed fist)

You can experiment with this point of contact and three-step process of playing each note across different strings or by repeating index/middle, index/ring, middle/ring, and thumb/index on the same string. We will explore many combinations of fingerings but the finger placement will usually be exactly the same—playing off that left side of the finger where the nails begins.

Eventually after getting comfortable with this placement and playing a range of music without nails, you can try growing your finger nails to get a louder sound and more tonal range. I suggest filing each nails at and a 45-degree angle from the left side of each finger as far across the nail as possible creating a ramp from left to right. We will use the same point of contact on the left side of the finger where the nail begins. If you don’t file the nail, it will form a hook that catches on the string and will sound thin. I use a file then very fine grade sand paper (Tri-Mite sandpaper from stringsbymail.com) to smooth out all the roughness. You can usually find a similar 2000 plus grit sandpaper at hardware stores. Tell the staff at one of these stores your are shopping for sandpaper for your nails to play ukulele and see if they call security! Anyway, using sandpaper after filing makes a HUGE difference in tone. It also creates less resistance as the nails move across the strings. The flesh of the fingertip is still used in combination with the nail. This balance of warmth and volume produces an ideal sound. For an added benefit, tilting the hand to the right creates a brighter sound when needed like turning the treble up on a stereo system. This change in tone happens because you are now using more nail than fingertip which brightens the sound.

Have fun experimenting with finger placement and tone production without nails at first. Take you time and enjoy the beautiful sound that results.